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When pop goes postmodern: Scarlett Thomas

June 23, 2009 |  2:42 pm


Colleen Mondor would not say she is an expert in postmodernism -- but she happens to like the work of some authors, like Scarlett Thomas, who write deliciously readable books that quietly veer into postmodernism. An England native, Scarlett Thomas has published seven novels with an eighth due later this year; Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist and columnist for Bookslut. She has recently completed a memoir on Alaska aviation and lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

As the last English course I attended was in 1986, my understanding of postmodernism remains frozen in the frenzied period of study prior to my AP exams. I did manage to retain a great love for books in spite of many high school literary traumas, however, and can certainly recognize a complex and satisfying read when I find one. James Joyce may not be my cup of tea, but Scarlett Thomas is another matter entirely. With her fun skewering of our capitalist economy in "PopCo" (2005) -- which includes pirates, World War II code breaking and the evils of Hello Kitty -- she sold me on a style that willfully includes all the things that interest her at the moment.

Where Thomas’ mind took her in "PopCo" was the life of Alice, raised by code-breaking grandparents on a continuous diet of ciphers and puzzles and a very real mystery of lost pirate treasure. Readers learn of World War II espionage through flashbacks while Alice’s contemporary life plays out at a corporate "Thought Camp" where she and her fellow employees are tasked with designing the next big material object for teen girls; it will exist solely for the purpose of ownership and serve no function. (This would be where Hello Kitty’s ubiquitous example comes into play.) From a childhood tasked with finding solutions to an adulthood that has landed her as a servant of capitalism, Alice is at a serious crossroads.

If the book were only about Alice's career, it would be one thing, but Thomas refuses to let go of the mathematical equations that have propelled Alice through every moment in her life:

One of the most famous contemporary uses of a Caesar shift cipher is, according to SF geeks, in the naming of the fictional computer HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Taking into account a Caesar shift of minus-one, "HAL" of course reads "IBM." I used to have a little Caesar-shift wheel.... 

"PopCo" veers from social commentary to wartime reminiscence to piratey adventure. That it does so without straying from the author’s fine target -- capitalism -- is a tribute to her determination to make it all work. It is also a tribute to the wit of Alice, who cannot believe where she has found herself or, most shockingly, that there is a world of people who take all of this seriously. From unlocking the secrets of the enemy to those of a teenage girl's mind, Alice has seen it all, and Thomas leaves no doubt as to which is more worthy -- or where most of us spend far too much of our time.

In her follow-up to "PopCo," Thomas tackled Derrida, quantum physics, creationism, black holes, academia and travel to an alternate reality. "The End of Mr. Y" (2006) is, again, about a woman looking for something. In this case grad student Ariel has been looking for information on a 19th century writer for a long time. In "Mr. Y’s" opening pages, she discovers his last known book, which is rumored to be cursed.

She reads it (of course) and immediately finds herself willing to risk everything to follow in the author’s footsteps. She ends up transported to a place where thoughts collide; traveling through the minds of others becomes a drug Ariel cannot resist. Each trip becomes more dangerous, as there are those who want the book’s power to remain secret, and the threat of capture looms ever larger.

Just as she narrowed the focus of capitalism to what a girl wants in "PopCo," the big ideas of quantum physics become a question about how badly we want to escape in "The End of Mr. Y." What this means to readers and what Thomas is saying is more about the collective power of ideas and their ability to be transformative than anything else.

Does that make her postmodern, as my AP English teacher would ask? As god is my witness, I do not know, but she’s a bloody good writer and because of that I look forward to her next book, "The Death of the Author," due out next year.

-- Colleen Mondor